Society for the Teaching of Psychology
Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Modified team-based learning: Does it impact students’ empathy and perceived social support?

02 Apr 2019 9:48 AM | Deleted user

Sharon Claffey (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts)

Active learning is a popular classroom technique that shows up in several forms. Classrooms are “flipped” and class time is devoted to activities rather than requiring students to simply listen to lecture. Team Based Learning (TBL) is a form of small group learning that is centered on student experience and interaction (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008) and is very structured in its design. In my past TBL courses, students would read the material independently and then come to class ready to take a Readiness Assessment Measure (RAM) independently, and then immediately take a RAM as a team effort. The rest of the course time would be divided into team activities and, less frequently, independent assignments. 

When I taught courses using the TBL approach, I was not entirely happy with the rigidity of the design. As with any course design, I found students who loved the TBL approach and students who hated it. Particularly, I found that students quickly learned which teammate was the strongest academically and often defaulted to that student (e.g., having that particular student complete the team RAM without input from the rest of the team). This reduction in activity for some students contradicted the point of TBL and frustrated the students who felt they were carrying their team. 

Consequently, I opted to take the parts of the TBL classroom that I loved (i.e., the active learning) and create a modified approach that was less reliant on strict formatting.  The core goal of the TBL design is to shift the focus of class time from lecture to more active participation and application exercises that facilitate learning and promote critical thinking about the material. Group activities have been shown to increase retention of material along with student satisfaction (Drouin, 2010), and to increase performance on objective knowledge assessments followed by students’ ratings of their ability to apply knowledge (Kreiner, 2009).

While most research on TBL focuses on learning and classroom performance (e.g. Jakobsen, McIlreavy, & Marrs, 2014; Liu & Beaujean, 2017), I decided to examine the impact TBL has on empathy and social support among the students. This took the essence of TBL, but not the assessment (i.e., the active learning remained intact, but not the traditional TBL grading structure). Would active learning and increased interaction among small groups affect the students’ classroom experience?  Specifically, I wanted to examine if students in an active learning environment had more empathy and felt like they received more social support (both social and instrumental) from their classmates.

I compared students from my two sections of Social Psychology (taught in consecutive class periods in the same room). Students in both sections of the course received traditional lecture during the first half of the semester. This was intended to ensure that students had time to get used to the material and exam formats and because I wanted to avoid potential regression to the mean. After the second exam, the students in both sections were randomly assigned into teams which they sat with during that portion of the course. In my experience, students tend to start a semester sitting near people they know and also tend to stay in those seats throughout the semester. I didn’t want their friendships to impact potential empathy and social support rather than course design. After the change in seating arrangement, one randomly assigned section of the course used a modified TBL approach. The modified TBL section and the lecture based section received the same lectures (available online) and exams, but the lecture based students did not complete the classroom activities and received the lecture during class time in addition to having the lecture available online.

Students were given two surveys: 1) after the second exam and immediately after being placed in teams and 2) after the third exam. After the end of the semester, I found that the classes weren’t different in measurements of Empathy or Emotional Social Support. I also found that the two sections did not differ in the reports of information or advice received from classmates on the first measurement of informational social support (which was after placement in new tables but before the active learning component began). At the second measurement, the modified TBL students had higher reports of receiving information or advice from classmates than the lecture group.  While this is encouraging, it could simply be an artifact of students needing to work together to complete the team assignments. Thus, it is possible that the informational support was specific to course material and not information relevant to other topics. 

I then examined some other factors to explore potential differences. While the modified TBL students missed more classes on the first measurement than the lecture students, there was no difference between the sections on classes missed on the second measurement. Perhaps the active learning environment increased students’ attendance in addition to impacting students’ perceptions of importance of lecture (since it was rated less important by modified TBL students on the second measurement).

Peterson (2016) found that students in an active learning environment outperformed students in a lecture section of the same class. I found that students in the modified TBL section improved on exam scores, but not the lecture students. I also found on the second measurement a difference between the reports of how important lecture was to understanding the course material, with the modified TBL students reporting it of less importance than the lecture students. While this could be explained by hindsight bias, it is interesting to note that the modified TBL students had better exam grades on the second measurement. 

In addition, I found that the TBL class also had a lower expected course grade on second measurement than first measurement. This is similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger & Dunning, 1999), although not tied to cognitive ability, but exposure to material in additional ways. I will also mention that there was no difference between sections on actual course grade. Similar to other researchers (e.g., Travis, Hudson, Henricks-Lepp, Street, & Weidenbenner, 2016), course satisfaction was not impacted.

Comparing the two classrooms was informative, but I also wanted to examine any differences that happened between the measurements within each class structure. There were no differences on course rating, importance of lecture, classes missed, or student effort put into the class. This is interesting because it indicates that the shift from lecture to active learning did not impact the students in those areas. I have had students tell me that they either love or hate a flipped classroom, so I suppose it is possible that students who like the course began to dislike it (and vice versa) which washed out any differences.

In conclusion, I found there were only some benefits to the modified TBL. While some may find this disappointing, I actually take comfort that there was no difference between course grade or course satisfaction. This gives me freedom in the future to shift the style of the course (between passive and active) without fear that I will be negatively impacting students. Such a shift would prevent stagnation in my teaching style and keep me active and engaged (which I would argue is also important for successful student experiences). 


Drouin, M. A. (2010). Group-based formative summative assessment relates to improved student performance and satisfaction. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 114-118.

Kreiner, D.S. (2009). Problem-based group activities for teaching sensation and perception. Teaching of Psychology, 36, 253-256.

Jakobsen, K.V., McIlreavy, M., & Marrs, S. (2014). Team-based Learning: the importance of attendance. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 13, 25-31.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134.

Liu, S.N.C., & Beaujean, A.A. (2017). The effectiveness of Team-Based Learning on academic outcomes: A meta-analysis. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 3, 1–14.

Michaelsen, L.K., & Sweet, M. (2008). The essential elements of Team-Based Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 116, 7-27.

Peterson, D. J. (2016). The flipped classroom improves student achievement and course satisfaction in a statistics course: A quasi-experimental study. Teaching of Psychology, 43(1), 10-15.

Travis, L. L., Hudson, N. W., Henricks-Lepp, G. M., Street, W. S., & Weidenbenner, J. (2016). Team-Based Learning improves course outcomes in Introductory Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 43(2), 99-107.

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